Criminal Juvenile Sentencing Changes

Criminal Law is always of great interest to me, especially since so much of my time is focused on criminal litigation for misdemeanors and DUI/DWIs. DUI law often affects juveniles and young adults; most charges are applied to males between the ages of 18 and 28, and many have multiple convictions for the same or similar charge.

The latest edition of the Florida Bar News, Volume 43, Number 12 discussed one of the most interesting topics in Florida law; juvenile sentencing. Especially in light of the Florida Court systems groundbreaking sentencing decisions in cases such as Lionel Tate (Broward County) and Nathaniel Brazil(Palm Beach County), it is groundbreaking that "the justices unanimously agreed that juveniles tried as adults for non-homicide crimes cannot be sentenced with no chance of release to "non-life" prison terms that will likely exceed natural lifespans. Applying retroactively in Florida was the US Supreme Courts decision in Miller holding that juveniles convicted of murder cannot be sentenced to life without any "meaningful" sentence review The overarching theme of those cases is that kids are different and the state cannot treat them like adults with extreme sentences [0].

The United States cannot impose cumulative penalties above and beyond those specified by state law for infractions of state's criminal code by its own citizens. [1]

The supremacy of federal law over state law only applies if Congress is acting in conformance with its enumerated powers [2]; the power to decide criminal sanctions is not one of those listed.

Alexander Hamilton explains in The Federalist Papers that any powers not specifically given to the federal government in the Constitution is reserved for the states.[3] In U.S. v. Constantine[4] the Court held that “Congress, since repeal of Eighteenth Amendment, has no power to ordain penalty for violation of state liquor laws.”[5] This case articulated the rule that is propounded in the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; that the states [have a] right to enact legislation defining what conduct constitutes a crime and fixing the sentence to be imposed upon conviction therefor and the manner in which sentence shall be served[6].

The contention that Falcon is no longer good law is incorrect and contradictory to the Supreme Court’s holding in Miller and Witt.

In Miller v. Alabama the Supreme Court held that “mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.”[7] Retroactivity of the Miller holding was hinted at by the majority opinion written by Justice Kagan, who stated in dicta, “given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate sentencing for juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”[8] However the lack of explicit Court ruling regarding retroactive application of the holding ultimately set the stage for Falcon v. State.

Falcon was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.[9] Subsequently, in August 2012, Falcon filed a motion for post conviction relief and to correct an illegal sentence, asserting that her mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional under Miller and that she was therefore entitled to be resentenced.[10] The Florida Supreme Court ultimately found that Miller should be applied retroactively, under the rationale put forth in Witt v State.[11]

In Witt, the court propounded that the “Doctrine of finality should be abridged only when a more compelling objective appears, such as ensuring fairness and uniformity in individual adjudications.”[12] The court decided that to deny Falcon of her right to a resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller would have been materially unfair and a violation of her proscribed rights.

The balancing test, which weighs the constitutional rights of juvenile offenders with more deference than the doctrine of finality, is a state’s consideration. To this end, Witt recognized that changes in the law that “drastically alter the substantive or procedural underpinnings of a final conviction and sentence” outweigh the State's interest in finality of litigation.[13] Without question, Miller is a substantial and substantive change in the law because it requires consideration of the nature of the offense committed and the juvenile's individual attendant circumstances as part of the application of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“Teague recognizes that new rules of criminal law should apply retroactively in some situations.[14] Specifically, Teague articulates two narrow exceptions to its presumption against retroactivity.[15] The first exception applied to new rules that place “certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law making authority to proscribe.”[16] This rule, applied by the Court, distinguishes substantive rules that apply retroactively from procedural rules that do not.[17]”[18]

In deciding whether a new rule or law should be applied retroactively, are: purpose to be served by the new rule; the extent of reliance on the old rule; and the effect of retroactive application of the rule on the administration of justice.[19]

The purpose of the new rule, as expressed in Miller, was to prevent the unjust application of life in prison to juveniles as though they were adults, as this is tantamount to a death sentence and a violation to a juveniles 8th amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The Miller rationale explained that a juvenile spending life in prison would be there longer than an adult (i.e. that more of their life would be spent in prison); and that juveniles are immature and inexperienced and rationalize differently than adults. Because of these natural and implicit differences between children and adults, the utilization of mandatory sentencing is unjust. Children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing, and because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.[20]

The extent of reliance on the old rule however cannot be understated. The States have a legitimate government interest in the doctrine of finality, and not crowding courts retrying criminal cases that were already decided. However, when Florida decided the Falcon case, it commenced this examination of the options and alternatives and made its decision that Miller could and should be applied retroactively. Florida decided that this rule had a substantive impact on the administration of justice, more so than procedural.

To summate, in Miller, the Court went to great lengths to describe all of the various personal characteristics that differentiate juvenile offenders from adult offenders, including youth and immaturity among others. This evaluation of specific facts on a case by case basis is more substantive than procedural, so Miller is presumptively retroactive. This means that the application of Miller by the State of Florida in Falcon is also retroactive.


[0] Pudlow, Jan, 'Whitney Untiedt's 'Big Idea'. The Florida Bar News, Volume 43, Number 12. June 15, 2016.

[1] United States v. Constantine, 296 U.S. 287, 294, 56 S. Ct. 223, 227, 80 L. Ed. 233 (1935). See, also, U.S. v. Kesterson, 1935, 56 S.Ct. 229, 296 U.S. 299, 80 L.Ed. 241; 147 U.S.C.A. §1983 (West 2012).

[2] Bosek et al., §14. Powers as between state and federal government; application of laws, 48A Fla. Jur 2nd

[3] Alden v. State, 1999 WL 83928 (U.S.), 8 (U.S.Amicus.Brief,1999) (“It merits particular attention ..., that the laws of the confederacy as to the enumerated and legitimate objects of its jurisdiction will become the supreme law of the land; to the observance of which all officers, legislative, executive and judicial in each state will be bound by the sanctity of an oath. Thus, the legislators, courts, and magistrates, of the respective members will be incorporated into the operations of the national government as far as its just and constitutional authority extends; and will be rendered auxiliary to the enforcement of its laws.”) The Federalist, No. 27, (Alexander Hamilton).

[4] Id.

[5] United States v. Constantine at 223

[6] Rose v. Haskins, C.A.6 (Ohio) 1968, 388 F.2d 91, 18 Ohio Misc. 81, 45 O.O.2d 395, certiorari denied 88 S.Ct. 2300, 392 U.S. 946, 20 L.Ed.2d 1408.

[7] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012)

[8] Lauren Kinell, Answering the Unanswered Questions: How States Can Comport with Miller v. Alabama, 13 Conn. Pub, int. L.J. 143 (2013).

[10] Id.

[11] Witt v. State, 387 So. 2d 922 (Fla. 1980)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Teague v. Lane , 489 U.S. 288 (1989).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] William W. Berry III, The Retroactivity Roadmap. How Montgomery Exposes Challenges to LWOP Mandatory Sentences, NYU Journal of Law and Liberty (2015).

[19] Hughes v. State, 901 So. 2d 837 (Fla. 2005)

[20] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012)

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